“ I freely admit that the best of my fun I owe it to horse and hound.” W.Melville
Like most of the peoples of the past, the Scandinavian raiders loved their horses and dogs. Both animals were vital elements in displaying status, but also essential to hunting, a popular pastime for the great and not-so-good.
Because of their close relationship with humans, both dog and horse (unfortunately for them) found themselves often slaughtered and buried with their humans. Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s lurid description of the 10th century AD Rus burial slaughter, somewhere along the Volga River may have been an unusual event (Katona 2021), but certainly bone assemblages of horses and dogs have been found in many Viking graves – Balladoole (Bersu and Wilson 1966) on the Isle of Man even has a possible human sacrifice, just like Fadlan’s description.
But it wasn’t all just all male leaders who were thus interred – the Viking burial at Birka, in Sweden was that of a woman (Price et al. 2019), armed and tacked up with her two horses, and the women of Oseberg were also accompanied beyond the veil by their steeds (Burge 2021). Yet there is little evidence of this practice in Ireland, with only two or three sites which could even be considered as ‘maybe’s’. Maeve Sikora (2003) lists Athlumny, in Meath, Islandbridge in Dublin and Cloghermore, Co. Kerry.
Of course, there is also the relatively unexplored territory of examining the relationship between humans and their work animals – there is evidence of pack ponies in Viking Dublin, and traders may well have been accompanied by sharp eyed guard-dogs while on the road with their wares. Their story is every bit as important as that of the well-to-do – they’re all Dubliners after all! I wonder what we will discover?
Image 1: reconstructed Viking bridle. From Nòrgaard, M 2021 ' a bit of a bit' in Pedersen, A and Schifter Bagge, M (eds) Horse and Rider in the late Viking Age, p155.
Image 2: Equine burial at Stengade 1 grave 3, 1905. From Pedersen. A 2021 Equestrian burials in Viking age Denmark, Pedersen, A and Schifter Bagge, M (eds) Horse and Rider in the late Viking Age, p131.
Image 3: Sarstedt burial in Saxon warriors, Carolingian and Ottonian cavalry in Pedersen, A and Schifter Bagge, M (eds) Horse and Rider in the late Viking Age, p 282.
Bersu, G and Wilson. D, M. (1966). Three Viking Graves in the Isle of Man. London: The Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series: No. 1
Burge, K. (2021). Queen (s) of the Viking age. Agora, 56(1): 27-32.
Katona, C. (2021). Exotic Encounters: Vikings and Faraway Species in Motion in Bartosiewicz, László, and Choyke, Alice (eds). Medieval Animals on the Move: Between Body and Mind, London: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp.167-177.
Price, N., Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., Zachrisson, T., Kjellström, A., Storå, J., Krzewińska, M., Günther, T., Sobrado, V., Jakobsson, M. and Götherström, A. (2019). Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj. 581. Antiquity, 93(367): 181-198.
Sikora, M. (2003). Diversity in Viking Age Horse Burial: A Comparative Study of Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland. Journal of Irish Archaeology, 12/13: 87–109